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Do Austrians want to forget, not confront, their past?

By Elizabeth PondStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 11, 1988


ON Wednesday, March 9, 1938, the Viennese Jews thought they were safe. Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg offered an opening to the left, and called a referendum that was sure to turn down unification with Adolf Hitler's Germany. ``Men - the hour has struck!'' he exclaimed, quoting a legendary Tyrolean hero.

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Besides, cosmopolitan ``red Vienna'' - the former home of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, and Arnold Schoenberg, the socialist stronghold that by contrast to the more conservative countryside - had fully assimilated its successful Jews. And pro-government demonstrations in the capital were increasing to counter the pro-Nazi demonstrations.

After the chancellor's summons, workers toiled all night long painting walls and streets with huge ``Yeses'' to a free and independent Austria, recounts George Clare in the autobiography of his boyhood, ``Last Waltz in Vienna.'' ``Aeroplanes showered leaflets over the city. ... The whole city was a seething, teeming hot-bed of patriotic emotion and activity. Vienna had last witnessed comparable scenes in August 1914, when its crowds acclaimed the outbreak of the war.''

But on Friday, March 11, the Jews found out how wrong their presumptions of safety were. Hitler presented an ultimatum; Chancellor Schuschnigg called off the plebiscite.

After hearing the announcement, Clare's family sat in stunned silence. And then the roar began as thousands of Austrian Nazis rolled by in trucks outside, chanting, ``One people, one Reich, one F"uhrer! Perish Judih!'' George, looking out the window, saw the friendly corner policeman, a swastika suddenly on his sleeve, beating a man who had called out against the Nazis.

On Saturday, March 12, the patriotic mood had changed to an equally enthusiastic pro-Nazi mood. Festive Austrian flags with swastikas hastily sewn on flew everywhere. Squadrons of German bombers circled low over Vienna, dropping leaflets. Hitler entered Linz, received an ecstatic welcome, and declared Anschluss, or union between Austria and the Third Reich.

For full-blooded Austrians the years of post-imperial humiliation, unemployment, and civil war were over. For Jews, the years of terror began. And the Austrians, unlike the Germans, did not bother, even at the beginning, to restrain their anti-Semitism. Within hours of Anschluss, Jewish cabarettist Fritz Gr"unbaum was taken to the Dachau concentration camp, there to be clubbed to death.

There was a ``volcanic outburst of popular anti-Semitism,'' relates Clare. Stars of David were painted onto Jewish shops.

Statistically, Austrians constituted only 8.5 percent of the greater German population; yet they would provide three-fourths of commanders of the extermination camps and commit a minimum of 40 percent of all war crimes, in the calculation of veteran Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

But the Austrians were declared by the victors of World War II to be victims of Anschluss, and not co-perpetrators of the the murder of some 6 million Jews.

In the postwar world the Austrians therefore never had to offer restitution to Jews, as West Germans did. They never had to challenge the postwar anti-Semitism that has remained much closer to the surface here than in West Germany. They sentenced relatively more war criminals in the immediate postwar years than did the occupying powers in West Germany.